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Gluten, a protein found in wheat and various grains, is the backbone of many baked goods, including pizza dough. This essential component provides dough with its stretchy, elastic qualities, enabling it to rise and retain its form during baking. Understanding gluten’s role, along with the influence of different flours and fermentation processes, is key to mastering the art of pizza making. Let’s explore how gluten works, the types of flour best suited for pizza dough, and the impact of fermentation on its texture and flavor.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a composite of two proteins: gliadin and glutenin. When flour is mixed with water, these proteins form a network that gives dough its stretchy and elastic characteristics. This network traps carbon dioxide produced by yeast during fermentation, causing the dough to rise and creating a light, airy structure in the finished crust.

The Role of Gliadins and Glutenins
Gliadins: These proteins contribute to the dough’s viscosity or extensibility, making it stretchable. Modern wheat has been bred to contain more gliadin, which is favored by bakers for its ability to make dough more workable. When hydrated, gliadins behave like a viscous liquid, which helps the dough stretch without breaking.

Glutenins: These proteins are responsible for the dough’s elasticity or strength. A good balance between glutenin and gliadin is essential. Too much glutenin results in an overly strong dough, making it difficult for air bubbles to expand, leading to a denser texture. Conversely, too much gliadin makes the dough overly elastic and weak, failing to hold air bubbles effectively.

Protein Content vs. Gluten Content
The terms “protein content” and “gluten content” are often used interchangeably because gluten is formed from the proteins in flour. Generally, the higher the protein content in flour, the higher the potential gluten content. This is why high-protein flours, like bread flour, are preferred for pizza making—they form a stronger gluten network, providing the structure needed for an airy and well-risen crust.

Weak vs. strong Flour

When we talk about flour’s strength, we refer to its ability to absorb water during the kneading phase and retain gas (carbon dioxide) during the leavening process. This capacity is determined by the amount of gluten that the flour can develop. The greater the quantities of glutenin and gliadin present in the flour, the greater the dough’s ability to develop gluten.

Flour strengths are classified based on their protein content:
Weak flour: This type of flour has a low protein content (around 9-10.5%). Examples include cake and pastry flour. These flours produce less gluten, resulting in a tender and crumbly texture, ideal for quick baked goods like cookies and pastries.

Medium strong flour: These flours have a protein content of around 10.5-11.5%. They are versatile and can be used for a variety of baked goods. They produce a moderate gluten network, making them suitable for doughs that need a bit more strength and hydration than those made with weak flour but not as much as those made with strong flour. This type of flour can be a good choice for slightly longer fermentation periods (4-12 hours). Examples include all-purpose flour and 00 flour from supermarkets.

Strong flour: strong flours have a higher protein content (typically 12-15%). Bread flour, type 0, and some types of 00 flour fall into this category. They create a strong gluten network, making them perfect for pizza dough with long cold maturation in the fridge, which requires elasticity and strength to rise properly and hold its shape during baking. They are capable of holding a high amount of water without problems.

Measuring flour strength: the “W” Index
Flour strength is often measured using Chopin’s alveograph, a laboratory instrument that compares the elasticity or hardness of different flours. This measurement is expressed as the “W” index:

Strong Flour (High “W” Index): these flours have a high gluten content (12-15%), allowing them to absorb more water and rise more slowly. They are ideal for long-leavened doughs such as bread, pizza, panettone, and other large-leavened products.

Weak Flour (Low “W” Index): These flours absorb less water and rise more quickly, as the weaker gluten mesh allows gases to release easily. They are used for quick pizzas, biscuits, shortcrust pastries, cookies, and breadsticks.

Choosing the Right Flour for Pizza
For pizza dough, a high-protein, strong flour is usually the best choice. Here’s a quick guide based on your fermentation time:

  • Short Fermentation (1-2 hours): Use flour with a lower “W” index (W 160/190, protein 10-10.5%). This process is quicker and suitable for some focaccias or pan pizzas.
  • Medium Fermentation (3-4 hours): Opt for flour with a “W” index of 200/220 or protein content of 11-11.5%. Suitable for quickly fermented pizza dough or bread rolls.
  • Long maturation in the fridge (12-48 hours): Choose flour with a high “W” index (W 230/270 to W 280/300, protein 12-13%). Suitable for direct doughs like Neapolitan, New York style, Tonda Romana, and any kind of focaccia.
  • Very Long Fermentation (48-72 hours): Use the strongest flours with a “W” index of 340/400 and protein content of 14-15%. Suitable for Panettone dough, sourdough bread or complex pizza doughs like canotto or teglia romana with pre-ferments and doughs that contain a blend of flours.

Important to note that simply looking at the protein content isn’t enough; the type of flour also matters because different flours with the same protein content can develop gluten differently. For example, wholemeal flour with 13-14% protein is not comparable to soft wheat flour with the same protein level. Wholemeal flour tends to have a weaker gluten network and doesn’t support the same leavening times as soft wheat flour.

To summarize:

  • Soft wheat flour and durum wheat flour are among the strongest flours.
  • Wholemeal flours are generally considered medium strength.
  • Oat, rice, millet, rye, and buckwheat flours are classified as weak flours

Fermentation: long vs. Short
Fermentation is the process where yeast consumes sugars in the dough, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol, which helps the dough rise and develop flavor.

Short fermentation: typically, 1-2 hours. This process is quicker but results in less developed flavor and texture. The gluten network is not as fully developed, which can lead to a denser, less chewy crust. For short fermentation, you don’t need a very high protein content in your flour because the gluten doesn’t have as much time to develop and strengthen.

Long fermentation: This can range from 12-72 hours, often including a cold fermentation (maturation) phase in the refrigerator. This method allows for a more complex flavor as the yeast has more time to metabolize sugars. The gluten network becomes more extensive and strong, leading to a dough that is easier to stretch and results in a light, airy crust. 

Why higher gluten content is needed for long fermentation?
For long fermentation, it’s beneficial to use flour with a higher protein content because the extended fermentation process fully develops the gluten, providing the dough with the necessary strength and elasticity. Here’s why higher gluten content is important for long fermentation:

During long fermentation, the gluten network in the dough is extensively developed. Higher protein flours contain more gluten-forming proteins, which are essential for creating a strong and elastic dough structure. The extended fermentation process involves prolonged exposure to yeast and enzymes. These enzymes break down proteins and starches, enhancing the flavor and texture of the bread. However, this also weakens the gluten network over time. Starting with a higher protein flour ensures that there is enough gluten to maintain the dough’s structure throughout fermentation.

A dough with a well-developed gluten network can handle the prolonged fermentation time without becoming overly slack or difficult to shape. Higher gluten content helps the dough retain its strength and elasticity, preventing it from becoming too sticky or tearing easily when stretched.

Impact of salt

Salt interacts with gluten proteins during kneading, enhancing the dough’s elasticity and structure by strengthening the bonds between glutenin and gliadin molecules. This process creates a stable gluten network that effectively traps gas bubbles produced by yeast during fermentation. Without salt, dough tends to be stickier and harder to manage. The gluten strands may not align correctly, resulting in a weaker overall structure. This can lead to a dense, compact texture in the baked product rather than the desired light and airy crumb. Therefore, salt is essential not only for flavor but also for reducing stickiness and achieving optimal dough consistency and texture in baking.

Tips for perfect pizza dough

  • Choose high-protein flour: Opt for bread flour or flour with at least 12% protein, especially for long fermentation.
  • Hydration matters: The amount of water in your dough affects gluten formation. A higher hydration level (68-75%) helps develop a better gluten network but must always be paired with the right flour. The higher the protein or gluten content in the flour, the more water you can add to your dough.
  • Knead properly: Kneading helps to develop gluten. Ensure you knead your dough until it’s smooth and elastic.
  • Ferment slowly: For the best flavor and texture, allow your dough to ferment slowly at room temperature or mature in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours if using high-protein flour.
  • Handle carefully: Avoid overworking the dough after fermentation to preserve the air pockets that contribute to a light, airy crust.

By understanding gluten and how different flours and fermentation times impact your dough, you can master the art of pizza making and achieve the perfect crust every time. Happy baking!

By Safia Abali

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